Editor-in-Chief Justin Guglielmetti discusses the conclusion of two of the lengthiest free agencies for Major League Baseball stars in recent memory
At long last, with Spring Training already well under way, the two jewels of the 2019 MLB free agency class have new homes. Manny Machado, after a tempestuous six and a half seasons with the Orioles and a disappointing playoff run with the Dodgers, landed in San Diego for 10 years, $300 million.
It was the biggest free agent contract in the history of American sports for a grand total of eight days, before Bryce Harper topped it with 13 years, $330 million from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Though they are of different nationalities, play different positions and (until now) have resided in separate leagues, Machado and Harper have been linked together since the start of their careers. If I asked you to guess which one I was thinking of by telling you he was a heralded prospect who broke into the majors in 2012, his age-19 season, before becoming an MVP contender in 2015 and earning a reputation as a surly, possibly dirty, curmudgeon of a ballplayer … well, you’d still only have a 50 percent chance of getting it right.
Now they will each join a historically sad sack of a franchise in the role of “veteran presence overseeing a youth movement,” as they attempt to lead the Dads and Phils to their first winning seasons in nearly a decade.
For a while this offseason, as December turned to January and the hot stove seemed to burn cold, it looked like Machado and Harper wouldn’t be getting their money. When they set the baseball world on fire in 2015, pundits thought they would eventually lead the craziest free agency frenzy in the sport’s history, with each possibly commanding as much as $400 million.
But that didn’t end up happening, and as many of the pair’s suspected big-market suitors — the Yankees, Dodgers, White Sox, etc. — either dropped out of the race or showed a lack of interest altogether, those same talking heads began wondering if the system was broken.
It may still be. Regardless of how much they ended up receiving, we shouldn’t pretend that it’s normal for two of the game’s biggest stars to receive so little interest, or for their unemployed status to extend beyond pitchers and catchers reporting. Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned, despite being a former Cy Young Award winner who threw for over 200 innings last year.
So is Craig Kimbrel, the greatest closer since Mariano Rivera, and Gio Gonzalez, a veteran lefty innings-eater who is just two years removed from a sixth-place Cy Young finish. Nearly every other significant signing of the offseason either took longer than expected or amounted to less money than initially expected, and there are disturbing rumors that MLB could face a lockout after the 2021 season should the new CBA fail to address concerns regarding player service time manipulation and tanking.
But there is far too much stuffed into that issue to unpack here, not to mention the fact that thinking about a year of no baseball makes me sick to my stomach. Let’s instead think happier thoughts and concern ourselves with what we can expect from Machado and Harper in 2019.
The Phillies hope that Harper will be the piece to put them over the top and make them World Series contenders for the first time since the end of their Howard/Rollins/Utley mini-dynasty. At his MVP peak in 2015, Harper enjoyed the finest offensive season since prime Barry Bonds, but his career has been defined more by maddening inconsistency than sustained excellence.
According to Baseball Reference’s version of the statistic, he has only topped 5.0 WAR (a good baseline for an All-Star level position player) during one other season, and that was in his rookie year. Harper’s defense and baserunning have declined precipitously in recent years as he’s struggled with various injuries, plummeting his value even as he has remained an effective hitter.
Last season, despite leading the league and walks and topping 100 RBI for the first time, his WAR total amounted to a pedestrian 1.3.
The Phillies are obviously banking that Harper, who is still just 26 years old, can recapture some of the form that once made him a legitimate rival to Mike Trout for the title of Best Player in the Game. He’s obviously still got the talent, and though it’s probably the result of small sample sizes and facing Philadelphia’s pitching staff, he has historically raked in Citizens’ Bank Park.
The pressure won’t all be on Harper either, as they also signed All-Stars Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson and J.T. Realmuto.
Machado has been a substantially more consistent performer over his career even if he’s never flown quite as high. He has topped 33 home runs each of the last four years, played 155+ games in five of his six full-time Major League seasons and surpassed 6.5 WAR three times.
One of the biggest issues surrounding Machado has been his poor attitude, which has led to disputes with teammates, accusations of foul play, and insistence last year on playing shortstop instead of third base. Though his steady glove and rocket arm had already established him as an elite defender at the hot corner, Machado’s quickness and range proved far too limited to man short at an adequate big league level, yet he refused to play elsewhere.
It appears that $300 million was enough to sway him, as reports indicate that Machado will man third for his new team.
That will open up space for members of San Diego’s top-ranked farm system, which includes Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Luis Uris. Tatis, in particular, is a shortstop who is the consensus second-best prospect in baseball, and could be ready to join the big league club as soon as this season.
Even so, it’s unlikely that these additions will amount to a playoff appearance for the Padres, who will still have to contend with the talented Dodgers and Rockies as they attempt to climb out of the cellar of the NL West.